Zero profit growth expected for US companies in first quarter

Falling oil prices, a soaring dollar and concern about weaker global demand have increasingly pessimistic analysts predicting Standard & Poor's 500 companies will see no earnings growth at all in the first quarter of 2015.

That would be the worst quarter for Standard & Poor's 500 earnings since the third quarter of 2009, not long after the United States emerged from its recession. Revenue for the first quarter is expected to be worse, forecast to decline 2.0 percent from a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters data.

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The biggest drag is expected to be energy companies suffering from the oil price collapse, but analysts have dropped projections in almost every sector as the earnings reporting season has unfolded.

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On Jan. 1, S&P 500 first-quarter earnings were forecast to rise 5.3 percent, including energy companies, and 10.5 percent excluding energy companies. On Thursday, that consensus forecast was flat from a year ago including the energy sector, and cut to 7.9 percent growth excluding energy.

The weakening profit outlook does not bode well for the U.S. stock market, which has started the year off on weak footing as energy shares have plummeted and investors brace for higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve. The S&P 500 is down 2.3 percent for the year so far.

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"Disappointing earnings, the Fed probably headed toward tightening in the second half of this year, a very expensive currency, tepid overseas demand - it would seem like a storm that could crack this market," said Uri Landesman, president of Platinum Partners in New York.

Outlooks from companies themselves are far more negative than positive.

While many more outlooks for the first-quarter are yet to come, 26 S&P 500 companies so far have warned about the quarter, while just one has raised its forecast, Thomson Reuters data showed.

Expectations for the energy sector have fallen more than any sector for the current quarter.

Earnings for the S&P 500 sector are expected to drop 56.8 percent, the Thomson Reuters data showed. That compares with a Jan. 1 forecast for a 32.2 percent decline. U.S. crude futures fell from a mid-June 2014 high of $107.73 per barrel to settle at $44.45 on Wednesday, a near 59 percent drop.

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The materials sector, which includes several U.S. multinationals hit by the stronger dollar, has the next-biggest decline in first-quarter profit expectations, with growth for the sector now projected up just 4.3 percent compared with a Jan. 1 forecast for 17.0 percent growth, the Thomson Reuters data showed.

To be sure, profit growth estimates for the fourth quarter have actually risen in recent weeks. With results in from 32 percent of the S&P 500, earnings for the quarter are expected to have risen 4.7 percent.

That compares with a Jan. 1 forecast of 4.2 percent, but that is largely due to strong results from Apple. Without Apple, S&P 500 profit growth is estimated at 2.6 percent.